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For Slovaks, Bush visit fuels a new legitimacy

'Reliable ally' has coming-out party

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Less than a decade ago, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Slovakia a ''black hole in the heart of Europe."

Yesterday, President Bush told a cheering crowd in Bratislava that the country was now ''a trusted friend and reliable ally" whose democratic transformation ''is inspiring newly liberated people" across the globe.

Bush's one-day visit to Slovakia is being treated by this tiny nation of more than 5 million as something of an international coming-out party.

After years of being viewed as one of Europe's hopeless backwaters, officials and ordinary citizens viewed the first visit by a US president to their country as the most recent affirmation of their full-fledged membership in the club of Western democracies. It has also given a newly confident Slovakia, which last year joined both NATO and the European Union, a golden opportunity to introduce itself to the world.

''This day is historical for my country," Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said before Bush's speech.

Slovakia tirelessly promoted Bush's talks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia with T-shirts, stickers, pens, and coffee mugs referring to the ''Bush-Putin Slovakia Summit" -- although the White House officially called the event a ''meeting."

''This summit is the most important international happening on Slovak soil in Slovakia's modern history," Pavol Kubovic, a leading Slovak politician and deputy chairman of the Slovak Christian and Democratic Union, told the English-language Slovak Spectator. ''It demonstrates the level of success that our country has achieved over the past couple of years."

Officials here have also used Bush's visit, and the media attention that accompanied it, to draw attention to Slovakia's newfound reputation as an investment haven. Some journalists covering the visit were given small stuffed tigers, with labels calling Slovakia the region's ''economic tiger." Slick pamphlets proclaimed Slovakia ''the world's leading economic reformer" and touted the country's tax, pension, and welfare policies.

Bush received the warmest reception of his European trip when he addressed a crowd of approximately 4,000 on a square in Bratislava's Old Town in front of the National Theater -- on a spot where Communist police beat peaceful demonstrators in 1988.

''Slovakia is a very small country and when the first man from such a great nation as America comes here it means we are recognized," said Miroslava Micunkova, a 24-year-old student, who cheered, jumped, and waved US and Slovak flags as Bush spoke.

''We like and appreciate the visit," she added. ''Now people know that Slovakia exists."

For Slovaks, the chance to revel in the limelight was a long time coming.

Formerly part of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia rejoiced like the rest of the region at communism's fall in the 1989 Velvet Revolution. But political and economic overhauls in the country stalled after Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the peaceful 1994 Velvet Divorce.

While the neighboring Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians won international praise -- and foreign investors -- in the 1990s, Slovakia languished under the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Under Meciar, organized crime flourished and Slovakia was isolated from Europe's mainstream.

The biggest Western snub came when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO in 1997 -- but Slovakia was left out.

That all changed when Dzurinda came to power in 1998, becoming the leader of a broad coalition that included socialists and free-market reformers who were cobbled together to defeat Meciar. Dzurinda retained power following the country's 2002 elections, and guided the country into NATO and the European Union last year.

Under Dzurinda, Slovakia has also carved out a reputation as the region's boldest advocate of economic overhauls, and in the process implemented policies that are near and dear to Bush and other American conservatives.

In 2003, the government passed a 19 percent flat tax, restructured its pension system to allow for private retirement accounts, and dramatically cut public spending by tightening a communist-era welfare system.

The World Bank named Slovakia the world's top economic reformer in 2004 for improving its investment climate.

Last year, South Korea's Kia Motors, an affiliate of Hyundai, chose Slovakia over neighboring Poland for a $871 million auto plant, the company's first in Europe.

As thousands braved blowing snow, freezing temperatures, and tight security to see Bush and hear him praise their nation, Slovaks were jubilantly celebrating that their small country has at long last arrived.

''This means that we fit in the big picture of the free democratic world," said Tomas Cervenka, a 23-year-old student.

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